This article was written by Adam Hatch - UC Berkeley graduate, son of a teacher, brother of a teacher, and a teacher himself. Adam started a unique English school in Taipei, Taiwan, where kids learn to research and write articles in English. The articles are published on the first ever English newspaper written by kids in Taiwan, called the Taipei Teen Tribune.
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If you’ve been paying attention to the news in the education world in the past few years, you’ve probably heard about the miracles Finland is accomplishing in its education system. And results are hard to deny. Finland tops international rankings in reading, math, and science, and they do it with 30 percent less spent per student than the US. So how do they accomplish it? Here are six lessons the US could learn from our friends in Finland.
1. The diminishing returns on homework
Perhaps most notably for students, parents, and teachers alike, is the lack of emphasis the Finnish system places on homework. We take it for granted that homework is a necessary part of education, and on the surface we tend to assume that more must mean better. However, Finland has learned that too much is a waste and that high volumes of homework suffer from diminishing returns.
This isn’t to say that Finnish teachers don’t assign homework. It’s just that they wait until students are much older before they begin, and when they do they put more thought into how much is actually needed. And the benefits of a lighter homework load can be felt by everyone - no more parents wrestling with kids over unfinished assignments, less time grading meaningless work for teachers, and more time for kids to be kids once school is done.
2. Teachers aren’t overworked
In Finland, teachers spend a much smaller amount of time in the classroom relative to their American counterparts. How, then, is Finland’s system stronger than the American one? One reason is a relative lack of stress experienced on the part of teachers - they are less flustered and more prepared for class when they are teaching. Furthermore, Finnish teachers are paid for two hours a week of professional development. That’s over 100 hours a year of continued training and honing of teaching skills.
As such, Finnish teachers are less worn down and are better able to give each student their best. During work hours while not teaching, teachers are assessing students or preparing curriculum. This allows them to really think about what strategies will work best, and this added level of mindfulness makes for high levels of educational achievement.
3. Teachers are highly trained & highly respected
All teachers in Finland are required to have a master’s degree, and only the top 10 percent of applicants to these programs are accepted. Sound unfair? What if you heard that the program is fully subsidized by the Finnish government? In other words, Finnish teachers are encouraged to be and recognized as a professional elite determined by merit.
Teachers in Finland are as respected as doctors and lawyers. They are trusted to know how to educate both a class and a given student, and aren’t given an out of context set of requirements handed down from people who haven’t stepped into a classroom in decades. Communities and parents trust their schools so teachers are given the best chance to educate students and prepare them for productive futures.
4. Teachers are fully unionized and given a high degree of autonomy
Because of the amount of training and respect they’re afforded, teachers in Finland are given much more latitude in how they run their classrooms. Sure, there are government standards, but there is no standardized testing until students are 16, and when one technique or solution doesn’t work, individual schools and teachers are tasked with finding a solution. They aren’t forced to operate according to a hodge-podge of bureaucratically determined standards and regulations.
Part of this autonomy and good treatment can be traced to the fact that 96% of Finnish teachers are part of a union. Teachers have an advocate in dealing with schools and the government, and this coupled with the training and respect teachers are afforded, their ideas are listened to and taken into account from classrooms to the capital.
5. Students receive more attention & support
Smaller classes mean more attention per student, and Finland has learned this lesson thoroughly. Average class sizes are around 20 students in a room, and combined with the level of training of teachers, students are sure to receive a high-powered education.
And it’s not just classroom size that makes the difference. If a teacher has students with behavioral problems, the special education teacher is called in to consult. If schools have students arriving from other countries who can’t speak Finnish, additional teachers are available to support students until they catch up linguistically. And finally, if students need food, transportation, or healthcare, schools are equipped to provide it, ensuring all students are ready to learn.
6. Everyone realizes education drives economic prosperity
Part of the reason for the success of the Finnish system is due to the priority placed on education in public life and Finnish culture. And this isn’t some pie-in-the-sky kumbaya philosophy - when Finland was experiencing economic downturn and stagnation, instead of implementing short-term, stop gap solutions, they emphasized the importance of preparing Finnish youth for a more globalized, competitive, and shifting economy. In other words, they reinvigorated Finland’s economy by making education for all a national priority.
This is perhaps the most important lesson the US needs to learn. In an era of greater segregation than anytime since before the Civil Rights Movement and profound struggle for everyday Americans just looking for work in the new economy, reemphasizing strong education for all citizens is critical. Instead of passing blame around and shrugging our shoulders, we should instead reinvest in American education, both financially and culturally. Teachers should be offered more comprehensive training and greater autonomy to do what they know will work.
Naysayers may claim that Finland is too different from the US to be a meaningful example - Finland experiences much less poverty, has a vastly smaller population, and is more socialist-leaning in its politics and values. However, for some of these reasons the benefits of a stronger, more equitable educational system are all the more valuable. If America can learn to trust its teachers to guide students to brighter futures, as well as see the raw economic value in making sure all students receive top notch schooling, we’ll all be in a better place.
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